Beloved pastors remembered for their dedication, unique personalities in service to Church and flock
October 15, 2013
HOUSTON — This past August, the Lord called home three priests of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. To the faithful, Monsignors David Kennedy and Charles Domec and Father Joe Gietl were dedicated servants with engaging and unique personalities. To their clergy contemporaries, they were admired peers and dear friends.
Monsignors Kennedy, 84, and Domec, 82, were retired at the time of their deaths; Father Gietl, 69, was the pastor at St. Edward Catholic Church in Spring.
A priest for 60 years, Monsignor Kennedy was ordained in 1953 by Bishop Wendelin J. Nold at St. Mary’s Seminary in La Porte.
During his days as a seminarian, the St. Thomas High School graduate is remembered for striving to do the very best in his every endeavor — whether it be in the classroom or in recreational activities.
“He was quite a perfectionist and quite an athlete. In golf, he would try to imitate Ben Hogan — his swing and everything. Every so often, it was nice to beat him in golf,” said retired priest Monsignor Eugene Francis, who attended seminary with Monsignor Kennedy and was ordained a priest in 1952. “He was very meticulous and very exact in whatever he would be doing.”
Monsignor Kennedy would display a fearless streak in breaks between classes, according to Monsignor Francis.
“The seminary had a four-story building and the fourth story was open all around, much like a porch,” Monsignor Francis said.
The fourth floor area was surrounded by a concrete barrier no more than 12 inches wide. “(Monsignor Kennedy) would get up there and visit with us while he walked on the ledge,” Monsignor Francis said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Monsignor Kennedy also possessed an exceptional singing voice — or so the legend goes. In biographical information he submitted to the Texas Catholic Herald in the mid-1960s, Monsignor Kennedy seemed almost reluctant to list the talent among his hobbies: “And I have been instructed to put down that I sing,” he candidly wrote, before adding “And I do. Gorgeously!”
There was nothing coy about his presence when class was in session at St. Mary’s.
“When describing Monsignor Kennedy, the adjective that comes to mind is astute — he really stood out,” said Monsignor Fred O’Connor, a retired priest and classmate of Monsignor Francis.
“Although Monsignor Kennedy was very young (in the seminary), he was a very deep thinker. He thought very deeply on any subject. He wanted to know the origin, the beginning and so forth. His mind was very reflective. Especially in theology and philosophy, he wanted to know more than what just appeared on the surface or what first struck his mind.”
Monsignor O’Connor recalls Monsignor Kennedy regularly asking professors follow-up questions during classroom discussions. Those inquiries would frequently stump the instructor.
“Almost anytime he asked a professor in class, he wouldn’t get an instantaneous answer,” Monsignor O’Connor said. “The professor would say, ‘I have to look it up, I’ll let you know tomorrow.’ Whether it was philosophy, theology — (Monsignor Kennedy) would send them to the books to do a little research.”
He went on to obtain a degree in Canon Law at Catholic University of America and, for a time, worked as the Defender of the Bond for the Marriage Tribunal for the local diocese.
While the two didn’t get an opportunity to serve together at a parish, Monsignor O’Connor knew Monsignor Kennedy to be “a very good worker, very dedicated and committed to his assignment. He had a great love of people; he took care of the people. People came first to him, not himself. He always put their needs first.”
Archbishop Emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza, who was ordained at St. Mary’s in 1954, remembers Monsignor Kennedy as a “very studious, intelligent, athletic-type” in the seminary.
The archbishop credits Monsignor Kennedy’s fluency in Spanish for incorporating the Hispanic community into the parish life as pastor at St. Anne Church in Tomball and Sacred Heart Church in Conroe, while also overseeing the physical development of those parishes to meet the demands of the growing population in Montgomery County.
“Now there’s a character...”
Widely known as a founder of Sts. Simon and Jude Church in The Woodlands, Monsignor Domec served as its pastor for more than 30 years before retiring. He is remembered by many faithful as a key figure in building the Catholic community in the region.
Archbishop Fiorenza said Monsignor Domec’s role as pastor was vital in administering to the large number of people moving to The Woodlands.
“He kept the presence of the Catholic Church active and alive (in The Woodlands) and became very involved in the ecumenical and social needs of the community,” Archbishop Fiorenza said.
To Monsignors Francis and O’Connor, who were four years ahead of Monsignor Domec in seminary, “Charlie” was a fiery, strong-willed personality never hesitant to speak his mind.
“Now there’s a character, a different guy altogether,” Monsignor Francis said. “In his early days, he was an outgoing priest as far as the sporting world. He loved to fish, hunt, play golf — he wasn’t worth a darn at it, but he loved to play golf. And he loved to tell stories, which were rather colorful.”
“Colorful” seems to be the choice word in describing Monsignor Domec’s vocabulary during conversation.
“He had adjectives we didn’t even know existed,” Monsignor O’Connor said. “He was also a very fearless competitor in sports. Even though we were just playing for fun or exercise (at the seminary) — touch football, softball, whatever — he had a very competitive spirit and really wanted to win. And sometimes he wouldn’t leave the loss on the field.”
“Charlie Domec was a good student, had a great sense of humor and loved to tell Cajun jokes,” Archbishop Fiorenza said about the Port Arthur native, whose parents were originally from Louisiana. “Both (Monsignors Domec and Kennedy) were good seminarians who mixed very well with their fellow seminarians — although they were different personalities.”
A classmate of three future bishops (Archbishop Patrick Flores of San Antonio, Bishop Joseph McCarthy of Austin and Auxiliary Bishop Vincent M. Rizzotto of Galveston-Houston), Monsignor Domec never retreated from theological dialogues.
“He wouldn’t have any fear competing or arguing with them,” Monsignor O’Connor said. “Charlie knew how to get his point out and make his position known, even among his peers. It could be about politics, government, anything.”
Monsignor O’Connor and Monsignor Domec served together for a brief time at Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Houston in the 1960s as assisting priests. Working under a pastor who was nearing retirement, one of them was expected to be “on call” for parishioners.
“That was a general rule — to have (a priest available) to be available for hospital visits, that kind of thing,” Monsignor O’Connor said. “He was always fun and we always got along well together. We enjoyed watching TV and sports.”
In the summer of 1973, Monsignor Domec was featured in the Texas Catholic Herald when he was pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Brookshire (Pattison) and St. Bartholomew Mission (now-parish) in Katy. “Small town pastor enjoys ‘peace, quiet’ and hunting” referenced his love of the great outdoors and life away from the big city.
The article described some of the benefits of serving in a rural parish. “‘An advantage of being in a small parish,’ Father Domec related, ‘is that the whole parish serves as his parish council.’ He just asks the parishioners to remain after Mass for discussion and voting decisions.”
Archbishop Fiorenza credits Father Joseph Gietl for spearheading the development of multiple parish communities in the local Archdiocese - Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Sweeny and St. John the Apostle in West Columbia; St. Ambrose in Houston; and St. Edward in Spring.
“He leaves a legacy of having built these churches, but far more important than that, he built the life of the parishioners into living stones of faith wherever he was,” Archbishop Fiorenza said. “He oversaw the expansion of the parish church and school at St. Edward and was very instrumental in getting Frasatti High School started.”
The school opened its doors to students this fall.
Father Gietl began his service as pastor at St. Edward Catholic Church in June of 2000. Billy Demuro, the parish’s plant manager, said the priest always valued his opinion and understood the needs of the church community.
“I appreciate the way Father Gietl encouraged me as we worked together,” Demuro said.
Father Gietl masterfully managed everything in relation to “the big picture,” according to Kathy Psencik, the St. Edward finance director — although “depending on the situation,” Father Gietl would refer to her as “his CFO, bookkeeper, human resources director or office manager.”
“Everyone here worked as a team and each of us felt valued as part of that team,” Psencik said. “He was fiercely loyal to his friends and to his staff. Father did a great job of listening to us collectively and individually. We all miss him so much. He would do anything for each of us as we would do anything for him.”
Such traits are commonplace for a man familiar with service. In the fall of last year, Father Gietl was featured in a Texas Catholic Herald story along with Deacon Nicholas Thompson — a fellow veteran of the Vietnam War — as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps.
In the Veterans Day article, Father Gietl said his military service was significant in his spiritual formation. Deacon Thompson said his pastor always strived for improvement.
“From the beginning, Father Joe wanted me to be better,” Deacon Thompson said. “He appreciated where I was but pushed for excellence. I believe being a Marine, a Catholic and a priest that his expectations of himself and those around him were often too high to reach. He was disappointed if those around him did not reach the goals he set but he was never as hard on them as he was on himself when he did not live up to his own expectations. Father Joe was the first to ask for forgiveness and to my knowledge held no grudges.”
Deacon Thompson said he will remember the pastor as a man of prayer whose Mass demeanor elevated the liturgy and daily prayer included “every soul” in the parish community.
“And as my confessor, well, he did the best he could with what he had to work with,” Deacon Thompson said. “He was, next to my father, the most honest person I’ve ever met. If it was on his mind he said it and you always knew where you stood. We grew to be friends, brothers and companions in prayer."
The deacon said Father Gietl’s legacy at St. Edward resides in “the Sacraments and Grace” he administered over the last 14 years of his priesthood.
“Every child Baptized, every sin reconciled, First Communion received, person anointed and laid to rest, including my mother and father — these are the treasures he carried with him to present to Jesus,” Deacon Thompson said. “These I believe were enough to get him into the big show for all eternity — ‘cause it sure wasn’t his golf swing.”